Think of that plot of the well-planned, thought-through kidnapping drama where the criminal mastermind has a location chosen and a hand-picked team of co-conspirators and every move planned three steps in advance. Well, this is most certainly not that. Julia (Tilda Swinton) is a brash-talking, loudmouthed alcoholic who can't hold down a decent job and who is getting too old for the party-all-night lifestyle, which doesn't stop her in the least from taking a new man to bed, or, you know, out to the parking lot, every night. As we are introduced to the lady in question she is already getting so riotously drunk that her lips are going numb and she can't keep her balance on the six-inch heels she totters about on whilst singing along with Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams". It is the first in a long succession of extremely drunken nights that end in bad decisions and one-nighters that leave Julia surly, hung over and decidedly deshabille when she wakes up not knowing where she is or what she's done.
Her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) tries to help, but gets nowhere. Julia has to attend AA-meetings, which is where she meets the decidedly strung-out Elena (Kate del Castillo), who who lives only to get her son, Tom (Aidan Gould), back from his grandfather. Elena has a truly harebrained idea to kidnap her son and take him to Mexico where he will come into his inheritance. Elena offers the kidnapping job to Julia, which is truly a case of the blind leading the blind in every sense of the expression. Tom is living with his millionaire grandfather who has cut off any contact between Tom and his mother, and probably for good reasons, judging by how seriously unbalanced Elena seems to the casual observer.
Elena plots it all out for Julia who, in turn, comes up with an even better plan. Julia's intention is to double cross Elena and kidnap the boy, exhort money, and happily get on with drinking herself into oblivion. At that point it comes as absolutely no surprise to the viewer that things go badly wrong right from the first move Julia makes. The police catch on very quickly and so does everyone else around them, Elena disappears, and Julia is more only or less frantically trying to make it work anyway, shifting her blackmail target to the grandfather instead. Things get worse from thereon out, and to top that off, Julia now has a eight-year-old tied up in the trunk of her stolen car.
Julia is not the kind of character that inspires a lot of sympathy. She's an inveterate liar, an alcoholic with an impulse control problem, and she seems to be incapable of making the connection between action and consequence. She has no qualms leaving Tom in the middle of the desert at night while she goes to try and collect her ransom money, she drugs the boy repeatedly, and ties him up while getting leglessly drunk herself. She lies to absolutely everyone with a kind of jittery conviction, talks her way into, and out of, trouble, and is in general not to be trusted. She keeps the boy alive through all the twists and turns of the plot, just barely, but she also shields him bodily when two counter-kidnappers point a gun at him. She is not the least bit likeable, and it is a true powerhouse performance by Tilda Swinton.
There's a lot of nervous energy running like a current through the entire narrative, supported by hard-edged performances by the lead actors and even the young boy Aidan Gould is given more than just one trite layer. He is precocious and spoiled, as well as vulnerable, which makes the dynamic more interesting when Julia fails completely to handle his obstinacy. It's disturbing how careless Julia is with her charge's safety and it's equally disturbing that she's still the safest alternative for Tom.
They make it across the border into Mexico hunted by what is probably the immigration police and not someone who is after them specifically. Things get even more complicated as Julia strikes up a conversation with Diego (Bruno Bichir) which results in Tom being kidnapped from her. Make no mistake, one of the prime motors in this is the seemingly inevitable conclusion that this will end badly. In every twist and turn of the plot there is the sense that Julia is hanging on by the skin of her teeth and that actually creates real suspense for the viewer by the very nature of the tale's unpredictability. Too many dramas and thrillers rely heavily on convention while serving up the promise that everything will work out in the end, heroes rewarded and villains punished according to custom, but there is no such safety net here. Add to that the fact that this is visually appealing and that the performance Swinton gives is truly Oscar-worthy and you have every reason to watch this movie. Just don't expect to actually like Julia, or even believe her assertion in the very last scene of the movie, where she promises to take Tom to his mother.
Julia (2008) directed by Erick Zonca stars Tilda Swinton (Julia), Aidan Gould (Tom), Jude Ciccolella (Nick), Kate del Castillo (Elena), Bruno Bichir (Diego), Horacio Garcia Rojas (Santos), Eugene Byrd (Leon).